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Might and Right (1939)

The questions I want to raise are fairly general, but I hope I shall be able to put before you one or two points you might find worth discussing. The first point I would like to make concerning the opposition between might and right is that in one sense of the word “might”, right could not conquer might unless it had might as well, so that it is the question of the comparative strength of opposing tendencies and there is no logical opposition between might and right, no matter what special sense may be found for the term “right”. Thus, we have to look for a more special sense of the word “might” than “power” or “force” or the exercise of force generally, and there I think the distinction intended is one between systems in which there are certain recognised rules, rules recognised to be just, and one of an arbitrary character in which any rule might be given up at any time, e.g., despotism or tyranny, the despot “knowing no rules but his own desires”. As far as that goes, then, you could talk of a struggle between might and right as one between a system in which there were settled rules and one on which this was not so, in which there were no understood or settled ways of procedure; and something of this is meant when people oppose might and right, especially when, in connection with the present war, Germany is taken as exhibiting might and the Western Powers, right.

Now one point there is that any system whatever must have certain rules of procedure and if, then, there is anything we call Hitlerism, there must he recognisable ways in which Hitlerism operates; and even if in that case it is not a question of laying down legal requirements, there is a sense in which we can speak of a right or of a recognised system of procedure. When we are speaking of a right or of a system of justice, we are apt to think (by the way the terms “right” and “justice” are used) that a system of rights means a defensible system; but it seems to me that you can have two quite opposed systems of right, each having its own recognised ways of procedure, each having its own justice within the system, and therefore it is only begging the question, in a conflict between the two, to call one right and the other not, or to call one justice and the other injustice. The main question is whether there is any such thing as an absolute right, something which embodies right, while the others are merely to be regarded as pretences at just dealing and are not entitled to that term. Now I would say that there is no absolute right; any system has its rules of operation, its right and its might, that is, its power to continue as a system, and therefore if we are contrasting any two systems, then each side will be found to have a certain right and each side a certain might. The assumption when we speak of international right or of its invasion by one power rather than another is that there is a system of recognised right, an understood system of procedure in international relations and not only that there is a system at a particular time. But the essential thing in determining whether there can be a system of right within nations is whether there are irreconcilable interests or not. If there are, then any system of right will be in some way a makeshift. Where there are dominant and subordinate interests, then even if the latter accept the system, there can be no moral objection to them if they alter it in their own favour. Where there is one sense in which we could use the term “might”, the operation of the dominant force on the subordinate one; the subordinate institution or organisation would accept, under force, the prevailing system laid down by the dominant one, although it would not recognise it as fulfilling its demands. Whenever, for instance, you have the element of might and the limitation of the system of right you have the fact that certain modes of procedure are established and this gives an index of the relative strength of the prevailing forces; but there is nothing, in calling it right, to show that it will be indefinitely maintained. This might suggest that we would he getting nearer something that could be called justice in an absolute sense if we had a country in which there were not irreconcilable interests. That would be what was understood by democracy, allowing for the argument that complete democracy might not be possible; but a system in which all minor groups did recognise the prevailing system of justice, and in which they were represented and in an equality with other members of the system, would be a democratic system.

We can consider in regard to the question of justice in States how far within any given State we do have democracy or an equality between members of the State, how far we have the prevailing of a system recognised by members not as something to be put up with, but with which they are in favour. Now no such State at the present time exists. Britain is not a State in that sense; there are positions of superiority and inferiority within the system. You have, then, a certain type of criticism of any system in so far as it rests upon inequality. One of the conditions of systems of right is publicity, the members should know what law is and approve of it and be able to discuss what goes on under the law. This is connected with the question of censorship and the legal system in any state, especially with regard to the right of comment. As it is, in movements opposed to the system, you will get comments but these are always made at the individual's own risk. If, however, you really have a system of right which people recognise, a way of working with which people could associate themselves, then there is nothing to fear from the fullest possible comment. In fact, the two would develop together, comment with further participation of the people in the system of justice. Anywhere where you have the failure to state the laws or to give the people in general the feeling that the laws are theirs or where you have laws to which people are opposed, you have social inequality, dominance and submission; you have the operation of might against right in the social sense. In the dictatorships, generally, you get the most marked departure from a system of recognised right, and it is most dangerous in Russia, because there you have people being condemned for acts in opposition to society as counter-revolutionaries; you do not find there that system in which it is a question of making the laws as clear as possible. This is only an illustration of what I mean, but at the same time you might notice in regard to Germany that there you have a very peculiar position. Borkenau (The Present German Enipire) says that Nazism arose from a deadlock of the right and the left: neither could establish a working system (including a system of law), and the Nazis came along to get over that, and the very circumstances in which they came to power would lead to the absence of publicity and would tend to arbitrary action in the interests of the ruling group.

Coming back now in respect to the question of an international right, there is the matter of whether, or to what extent, we can have equality, international justice and the satisfaction of various national interests; and it seems to me there that what we had so far is a pretence of justice, that it has been only the operation of might, simply the satisfaction of particular interests quite regardless of whether it has been recognised by other interests as right. All we have had is the satisfaction of national interests, the operation of might, with lip-service to international justice. It appears that it is difficult to get equality in these matters, to get the conditions of the working of a system of justice in international affairs; and actually such a system is impossible under conditions of capitalism; only under socialism would there be the possibility of a federation of States. The main thing I have attempted to show, then, is the varying extent to which you could have a working system of right and the varying attempts to which it could be restricted, and extended, by increasing publicity.

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